Treaty will be hyped but Clare will be psyched up to their eyeballs

There was a famous photograph taken in 2000 at a Leinster U21 final, shortly after Offaly had dethroned Cork to reach the All-Ireland senior final, where they were due to square up to Kilkenny again.

Treaty will be hyped but Clare will be psyched up to their eyeballs

There was a famous photograph taken in 2000 at a Leinster U21 final, shortly after Offaly had dethroned Cork to reach the All-Ireland senior final, where they were due to square up to Kilkenny again. Anyway, some fella got a notion to make a statement and he chose a slogan across his jersey to broadcast it. ‘Munster hurling my arse.’

The TG4 cameras picked it up and a host of media outlets ran with the story, all loaded with the intent of bigging up Leinster ahead of Munster hurling. Offaly had been All-Ireland champions in 1998 but, after Clare and Tipperary had contested the first all Munster All-Ireland final in 1997, many Leinster folk were only dying to fire a shot back across the Munster skies as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

Even though we’re all the one hurling community, there will always be some degree of rivalry between the provinces, and I’ve detected little traces of it over the last couple of weeks. The Leinster Championship has been as tight as a drum. The Munster Championship has been a washout.

That is the primary narrative but don’t anyone tell me that Galway-Wexford, or Dublin-Wexford were classics. They were both draws but, even though Clare were beaten by 13 points last weekend, there was still far more quality in the opening quarter of that match that in any of the Galway-Wexford game.

I’m saying it now with the benefit of hindsight, but I genuinely felt that Munster might struggle to produce the same drama as it did in 2018. Apart from second-season syndrome, could we really have expected as many dramatic comebacks and Hitchcockian subplots for the second year in a row?

Teams are studying each other to death now but the system has its flaws too. The sequencing still isn’t exactly fair when you look at Limerick and Clare’s scheduling of three games in 14 days. With Waterford as good as gone, Cork may have the opportunity to do a number on them this evening and sky-rocket their scoring difference, which could yet be crucial if three teams end on the same points.

Five of the six wins to date have been secured by the away team, which is the biggest turnaround from last year, but it’s been even more surprising how Clare and Waterford have taken such hidings in what they – and everyone else – expected to be fortresses.

I thought that Walsh Park was going to be a game-changer, both for Waterford and everyone else, but it looks now to have been more of a distraction than anything else. Waterford nearly made too much of it, by assuming that the opposition would be intimidated by the venue. I never felt Walsh Park suited this team but Waterford have almost looked spooked by the pressure of having to play at home.

Waterford have to show some pride now, anything, but while saying they’ve already thrown in the towel is too strong a description, they look like a side just willing the season to be over. I heard one horror story of a prominent player maybe not even making himself available for selection this evening. It’s doubtful that you can resurrect some level of performance from that morbid mental state within the squad. I expect Cork to load their full-forward line, blitz Waterford early, and to secure an expected win.

I was at a Permanent TSB breakfast morning in Limerick during the week. TJ Ryan was sitting at the table beside me when I said, ‘Sunday is big for us, but it’s far bigger for ye. Because if ye lose….’ I left the sentence hanging for effect but TJ, and everyone else in Limerick, doesn’t need to be told of the apocalyptic implications of defeat. For the All-Ireland champions to be knocked out, in front of their home crowd, by Clare, would be complete doomsday scenario stuff.

It seems a long, long time ago now since we went into the Gaelic Grounds as All-Ireland champions and Ciarán Carey sent us packing. The dynamic is slightly different now in that Clare still have another chance but this is old-school knockout stuff for Limerick. One shot, miss, and it’s all over.

Limerick will be pumped to the gills but the Clare boys will be psyched up to their eyeballs. There has been a dark cloud over the county all week after the Tipp performance but the Clare crowd will turn up in big numbers. The rivalry is fizzing again and the place should be rocking.

I’m sure there was some hard talking done amongst the Clare squad this week but most of the answers they’re looking for are not too hard to find; silly fouling, poor decision making, the ball coming back off the post and nobody near Seamie Callanan.

Limerick were seriously impressive last weekend, even if Waterford were atrocious, but do they stick or twist now? Does Paddy O’Loughlin start, or do they reintroduce Diarmaid Byrnes for his experience? The flipside to that argument though, is that the Byrnes situation underlines the massive depth which Limerick have, and Clare don’t.

I’m hoping in my heart that Clare can come out and deliver a performance befitting the occasion, and what it demands of the players. Clare showed last year that they are good enough but it will take more than just skill, heart and character because, apart from the motivation to avenge last year, Limerick look to have the edge back. Praying I’m wrong again but it looks like the odds are stacked the Treaty’s way.

Tomorrow’s game in Nowlan Park is one of these fascinating sub-plots in the ever-twisting Leinster story. It appears that Galway have to win and, yet, whether they do or not, they will still definitely have to win in Parnell next weekend to make sure of qualification.

That gives them some sort of leeway but Galway still won’t want to be taking any chances. What adds even more intrigue to the sub-plot is the scent of blood in Kilkenny’s nostrils. Galway look like a wounded animal, slightly staggering in the dark forest, maybe having lost their way a little, and the Kilkenny beast can sense the kill.

After losing twice to Galway last year, one of which was a hiding, Kilkenny would like nothing better than to cut Galway open, especially in front of their own crowd baying for fresh blood.

This isn’t the Kilkenny of ten years ago, who could cut your navel in the first ten minutes, and then watch you bleed out for the remainder of the match. Galway were All-Ireland champions less than two years ago but this team isn’t that team, or it certainly doesn’t have the confidence or conviction which carried Galway to that title.

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Derek McGrath and Ger Cunningham review the weekend's hurling with Anthony Daly

I wasn’t impressed with them against Wexford. You could sense the despondency and frustration around Salt-hill that evening. I saw it first hand from talking to a few Galway supporters in the hotel afterwards. That air of negativity, which too often crippled Galway in the past, was palpable again. It seems to have gripped the players and they need to smash their way through whatever it is that’s holding them back.

Too many guys are just not performing, especially their big guns - David Burke, Conor Cooney, Gearoid McInerney, Padraic Mannion, Cathal Mannion. Guys who have been on the periphery like Jason Flynn, Brian Concannon and Niall Burke didn’t do it the last day either but it’s difficult to get traction in a team when so many players are below par.

Galway have lacked that killer instinct and ruthless edge but they have been off-kilter in so many areas too, especially free-taking. I saw Niall Burke lasering over frees for Oranmore last year. Jason Flynn and Conor Cooney are solid free-takers but the malaise is just reflecting the general lack of confidence around the team.

Galway will have to be better than they have been but they should be. Joseph Cooney looked gassed after 45 minutes against Wexford but he’ll have benefitted from the two extra weeks of training.

Daithi Burke, who was only coming back from injury for the Wexford match, will be sharper too It could still take just one spark for Galway to explode again and this could be the game of the weekend. Kilkenny have big names coming back from injury. TJ Reid and Colin Fennelly have been on fire. You’d have to fancy them at home but, this match is so hard to call, that I wouldn’t rule out a draw.

After Dublin’s 12-point win against Carlow last Sunday, Wexford’s baseline target this evening will be to surpass that margin. Carlow aren’t a goal-scoring team but I don’t see Davy Fitzgerald reinventing the wheel. He will still probably have Kevin Foley sitting as a sweeper but I’d expect to see Paudie Foley, Matthew O’Hanlon and Shaun Murphy bombing forward at every opportunity. You could see Lee Chin closer to goal with Conor McDonald. It could be a patient day for Wexford, one of those evenings to knock over 1-25 or 1-26, while conceding very little at the back.

Either way, Wexford will get the job done with plenty to spare. Finally, the Joe McDonagh Cup is really ramping up in intensity and drama this weekend. In many ways, the competition has been more exciting than the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

The great pity is that the Joe McDonagh has had such little profile, which is why it’s great to see today’s games between Kerry and Laois, and Antrim and Westmeath, being shown on GAA Now. The exposure is fully deserved.

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